Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Double vision

[As I prepare Ghost South Road for publication, I've been 'filleting' the chapters by inserting accounts of some of the fascinating people I've met on my journey up and down the road. Here's a passage about my encounter with the remarkable Wiremu Puke.]

The last time I had visited East Hamilton my feet had been aching. Paul Janman and I had met Wiremu Puke at a café here, before beginning the third day of our walk up the Great South Road. Puke was a local. He’d arrived before us and settled behind an enormous bowl of latte. 

Paul and I had walked the twenty-six kilometres from Te Awamutu the day before, arriving in the dusk and rendezvousing with Ian Powell in the bar of Hamilton’s casino, where we’d eased off our shoes and drunk whiskey and cokes, and showed Ian photographs of the empty bottles and used condoms and Warriors caps that fly from passing cars and settle on the road’s grassy margin like driftwood on the beach of a desert island. Now we were hungover, with toothaches in our heels. Puke chuckled as we winced into our seats and ordered Diet Cokes.

Wiremu Puke has double vision. When he looks at the towns and villages of the Waikato he sees, behind and beneath and before their pubs and steeples and war memorial parks, the ancient landmarks of the Tainui people. In an essay he wrote to accompany a collection of photographs of the Waikato by David Cook, Puke imagines travelling in space and in time, to the summit of the sacred maunga of Taupiri centuries before Pakeha landed in Aotearoa, and looks down on the prelapsarian rohe of Tainui. He sees fleets of waka bringing kumara and pounamu up and down the river, swamps seething with guardian-taniwha, palisades sharp as dragon’s teeth protecting smoky kainga. 

For Puke, the past is as real, as palpable, as the present. The Waikato was the Nile of Aotearoa, his essay argues, and Tainui must restore the civilisation that the river nourished and demarcated. 

Puke is an expert on Tainui arboriculture, architecture, carving. He campaigns for the replanting of native trees along the river, for the extirpation of willows and poplars. He cuts pou for kohanga reo. He blesses buildings raised by Tainui’s commercial arm, like that boozy casino on Hamilton’s mainstreet. 

Wiremu Puke had worn a Waikato Chiefs jersey to the cafe. He had the lumpy, artificially elongated nose of an unlucky hooker or prop. He introduced himself by talking about his relatives in Yorkshire, his blood links with Whitby, James Cook’s hometown. ‘I was there a few months ago’ he said. ‘I carved for them. I’ve got connections to both civilisations.’

Paul had begun to talk about our walk, about our obsession with the Great South Road. ‘We want to do what Lord of the Rings did, but in reverse’ he said. ‘We want to document the real history of this place, not plant a fantasy from abroad.’ 

Puke had laughed. ‘Some of my rellies, they look a lot like the creatures in Lord of the Rings. Some of my cousins, you look at them, you think: ogres, trolls.’ 

But then he had grown sombre, and talked about his double vision. ‘The East Hamilton shops, the café where we sit right now, right under our feet – there are caves, and people are buried in those caves. The bones are still there, even though the entrances are buried. It’s the same all over Hamilton. The past is tarsealed over. They think they can forget it.’

Puke’s father was a Maori All Black, and one of the team of negotiators that got Tainui a Treaty settlement in 1994. The son saw his work as a continuation, a consolidation, of what the father had won. ‘It is a slow struggle’ he had told us. ‘One tree at a time. One mind at a time.’

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Monday, October 02, 2017

A reckless scheme

Paul Janman and I went to the University of Auckland's School of Architecture to give a guest lecture a couple of months ago. 
In one of the school's shadowy, open-plan buildings we met with Bill McKay and his students, who were together researching the architecture of the Pacific. I showed the students slides of a series of buildings raised by innovative religious and political movements, like the campus of the 'Atenisi Institute founded by Tongan pro-democracy campaigner Futa Helu, the psychedelic shack of the Seleka Club, Tonga's movement of kava drinking artists, and Fanafo, the utopian village that prophet and politician Jimmy Stevens had his followers hack out of the bush of Espiritu Santo in the years before the independence of Vanuatu.
After the lecture, Paul and I talked with McKay and his students. The teacher explained that he and several of his charges were trying to count and catalogue the churches of Tonga. This seemed to me then, and still seems to me know, a recklessly ambitious task.

Tonga is, after all, the most religious nation on earth, and its galaxy of Christian denominations multiply and divide more quickly than a junior maths champion. This month Bill McKay has published an article in Architecture Now that includes descriptions of one of the most remarkable Tongan churches, the Catholic cathedral of Nuku'alofa. It is marvellous to think that the cathedral's creators, who lacked any formal training in architecture, are gaining new admirers.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Winston? Really?

New Zealand has jumped in a time travel hot tub and ended up back in 1996, with Winston Peters holding the balance of power in parliament and retreating to inaccessible pieces of the coastline pursued by journalists and emissaries of the National and Labour parties. Bryce Edwards thinks that Peters might well spurn National, and help Labour take over the Beehive. But should such a prospect please Kiwis who voted for Labour and the Greens?

I haven't had time to make a proper argument, but on twitter I've been taking some potshots (here, here, here, and here, for example) at the notion of a coalition between the left and New Zealand First. Looking at pro-Labour sites like The Standard, though, I see post after post in favour of a deal with Peters' party. It is interesting how the Kiwi left can resolutely condemn Donald Trump, but be so keen to befriend the local politician who most resembles the American leader.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Hobson's Pledge, and Brash's cop-out

Don Brash says that he'll be voting for New Zealand First in the upcoming general election. Brash almost won the 2005 election for the National Party, and led the Act Party during the 2011 contest. These days, though, he's a spokesman for Hobson's Pledge, a group that lobbies against the supposed 'Maorification' of New Zealand. Hobson's Pledge likes Winston Peters' denunciation of Maori 'separatism', and is keen on New Zealand First's promise to abolish the Maori seats in parliament. 
Hobson's Pledge claims to be opposed to all forms of racism, but the group's detractors claim it is home to white supremacists and supporters of conspiracy theories about New Zealand history. At the end of July I posted about the praise for white Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa, puerile abuse of Maori, and bizarre claims about a pre-Maori white civilisation that were appearing on the Hobson's Pledge facebook page. 
Don Brash announced his endorsement of New Zealand First in the Franklin E Local, a giveaway magazine with a history of publicising strange conspiracy theories. The E Local thinks whites built a huge and technologically sophisticated society in New Zealand thousands of years ago, before being vanquished by Polynesian latecomers. It also thinks that UFOs regularly visit the earth, and that aliens sit at the head of a number of governments. Last year the magazine ran a fawning interview with David Icke, the former British broadcaster who claims that shape-shifting lizards from a distant planet are colonising our world by impersonating celebrities and politicians. 
As I noted last year, Don Brash has been a long-time contributor to Franklin E Local
After I posted about the antics on Hobson's Pledge facebook page, a disillusioned supporter of the group named Chuck Bird responded. Like Don Brash, Bird is opposed to Maori seats in parliament and on local councils and Treaty-based legislation. Unlike Brash, Bird is uncomfortable with the conspiracy theories and white supremacist memes at the Franklin E Local and the Hobson's Pledge facebook page.
Chuck Bird is particularly troubled by the case of Alan Titford, the farmer, anti-Treaty activist, and believer in a pre-Maori white civilisation who was sentenced to twenty-four years in jail in 2013, after being found guilty of arson and rape. For a number of opponents of the 'Maorification' of New Zealand, like the ad man John Ansell and Franklin E Local, Titford is not a criminal, but instead the victim of an intricate conspiracy by the New Zealand state, the National Party, and Maori activists. Chuck Bird fell out with Hobson's Pledge after attempting to debunk the 'Titford was framed' conspiracy theory on the groups' facebook page.
Here's the message Bird sent me: 
I have not been banned by many blogs Facebook ones or other. However, I have been banned from Hobson’s Pledge FB. My offense was for condemning convicted rapist and arsonist, Alan Titford who John Ansell believes was framed by the National government.
I contacted Don about this and thought he would sort this out. However, he says it is not he that looks after the FB page and he would not get involved.
I would have hoped Don would have learned from the Exclusive Brethren. You get judged by the company you keep. HP has a racist that monitors what is said and bans people who criticize anti-Maori racists.
If one looks at the main page of HP there are 12 people listed. I am not sure of there titles. Two are Andy Oakley and Mike Butler. They both believe Titford was framed by the government. This is ridiculous.
I do not know if Don has wasted his own money on this group with many anti-Maori racists but he has spent at lot of time.
If he believes from his discussion with Winston will insist on a binding referendum on the Maori seats he would make a lot more sense for him to directly support NZF and Winston rather than expect others to fund HP adverts.
It would be good if Don would comment.
I think Don's continued lack of comment about this subject says a great deal. 

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Rush Pirates

I spent the weekend just passed looking after Aneirin and Lui by myself. By Sunday afternoon, after a series of excursions and games, I felt that a restful movie was in order.

The kids had been dressing up as pirates, so I promised to find them a pirate movie on Youtube. I was horrified, though, when the telly wouldn't respond to the commands of my remote control (I later discovered it was turned off at the wall).

Aneirin was unphased. 'I can make my own movies' he told me. 'I've been studying how.' He dragged a huge bedcloth from a closet and hung it from a high point in the lounge room, so that it resembled a movie screen, arranged the couches in the room so that they faced his screen, and filled the couches with an audience of teddy bears and dinosaurs. Then he made Lui and me sit down too, and announced the premiere of a film called The Rush Pirates.

Aneirin stepped behind the screen, so that we could see only a vague semblance of his shadow, and began to act out a drama between two characters, Good Pirate and Bad Pirate, playing first one character then the other. The two pirates argued about treasure, brandished swords and pistols at one another, and finally exchanged shots. The movie ended when Aneirin fell through the screen and sprawled over the floor. Lui and I applauded The Rush Pirates loudly, and the dinosaurs and bears offered positive reviews.

Aneirin announced that the movie would screen again in a couple of minutes, rushed to the kitchen, and returned with a bottle of tomato sauce. When he burst through the screen for a second time and fell on the floor, his shirt was covered in red liquid. 'Neirin's hurt Daddy', Lui said in alarm. 'Lui you silly' Aneirin muttered, coming to life. 'I'm just pretending. It's a movie.'

I was confused at first by Aneirin's insistence on acting out his movie on the far side of a screen, but then I remembered a few precedents for such a manoeuvre. Didn't the Balinese stage puppet dramas from behind screens? Didn't Pink Floyd sometimes perform behind a wall?

After the third performance of The Rush Pirates Aneirin took a break, and Lui went and sat behind the screen. Aneirin was unimpressed by his little brother's unmoving shadow. 'Lui's making a really boring movie Dad' he said. 'Nothing's happening.' 'It's just a slow movie, that's all' I replied. 'Not all movies are as exciting as The Rush Pirates. There was a guy called Andy Warhol, and he filmed his friend sleeping for hours and hours, and then showed his film to audiences. He called it Sleep.'

'What happened at the end of Andy Warthog's movie?' Aneirin asked. 'I don't know' I said. 'I've never actually watched it. I think that the man who has been sleeping wakes up, and that's the end'. 'That's so boring' Aneirin said. 'If I was in that movie I'd run at the man with a pirate sword and wake him up a whack.'

'I think I would prefer The Rush Pirates to Sleep' I said. 'Are you going to show your movie to Mum, when she comes home, and to Marie'. 'Oh no' Aneirin said. 'My movie's only for boys. It's way too violent for Mum and Marie.'

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Friday, September 08, 2017

Watching Ballard

My father-in-law is an idealist and a humanitarian, and therefore finds the world of 2017 a painful and disappointing place. Alan watches the news, sees carnage in the Middle East, a nuclear standoff in Asia, and a buffoon in the White House, and wonders why humanity, with all its resources and technological prowess, is unable to live in anything resembling peace and harmony. Alan and I often talk about the manifest failures of modern civilisation, and he often asks me what has gone wrong, and I often make some vague and jargon-filled and contradictory reply.
My father-in-law is probably tired of listening to my attempts to explain the world, so I have sent him a link to this superb documentary, which the BBC made about JG Ballard in 2003. Ballard is probably most famous as the author of a series of science fiction stories about the end of the world, and as the man whose autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun inspired a lavish Steven Spielberg film.
As the BBC's doco shows, though, Ballard was also a prophet and a philosopher, who understood the world of late modernity earlier and better than almost anyone else. The BBC's team travels to Shepperton, the unglamorous London suburb where Ballard lived for decades, and interviews him beside a bleak reservoir and in a bar close to Heathrow airport.

The elderly author's commentaries on modernity are interspersed with dramatisations of scenes from some of his most important books: The Drowned World, which imagines melting poles, overflowing oceans, and a tropical Europe where lizards displace humans; Crash, the notorious portrait of a cult whose members get sexual gratification from smashing into each other's cars; Concrete Island, in which a twentieth century Robinson Crusoe finds himself stranded, after his car is wrecked, on a traffic island surrounded by motorways; High Rise, which describes the conversion of the two thousand inhabitants of a forty-storey luxury apartment embrace violence and a hunter gatherer lifestyle; and Super Cannes, which explains how a group of well-paid suits form a gang and begin to attack the vagrants and migrants who live on the streets of their city.
Again and again, Ballard argues that the apparent safety and wealth of modern consumer capitalist society is both ahistorical and unnatural, and can only disguise and create violence. In the most chilling section of the documentary, Ballard points to the 9/11 attacks on America, and notes that the young men who flew planes into buildings came from the shopping malls and suburbs of wealthy countries. Violent zealots, Ballard says, are an inevitable response to the world in which we live. Ballard's vision of the world is pessimistic, but like all great writers he sometimes manages to find a perplexing beauty in the places he condemns, and to make disaster and dysfunction not only vivid but uncomfortably exhilarating.

Ballard does not provide a comprehensive view of the modern world. He has little to tell us about economics, sociology, demographics. Nor does he offer anything like a coherent alternative to the civilisation that both appalls and beguiles him. But as an anthropologist of late capitalist consumer culture he is without rival.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Ta'e mahino

Here's a poem for Tongan Language Week. It is part of a series of verse letters that I wrote to my mate Sio Siasau when he was living and painting in Gotham City last year.

When I turned up to Pah Homestead to give a talk about Sio's art a couple of weeks ago, I attempted to give a Tongan greeting my audience, and was embarrassed to realise how much of the language I'd forgotten. The great Peter Ackroyd said that he cam assimilate masses of information when he's working on a book, but that much of it slips out of his head when he moves on to a another project. Can I claim the same failing?

Sonnet for Sio: 18

Your language is a portable homeland, Sio.
Inside my local Free Wesleyan Church
men must wear beaten bark around their waists,
dresses must waft safely around women's ankles,
and each deacon must carry a white handkerchief
in case the deacon's brow needs drying
halfway through his sermon. No word may begin
or end without a vowel, and choriesters must lift their voices
for the first syllables of 'uma and 'ata
so that no one may mistake a shoulder for a kiss,
or twilight for freedom. We repeat the prayer
to 'Otua, that god who demands
a glottal stop. Last night I dreamed
that I was on my knees, inspecting
the goddess Hikule'o's dress,
lifting its hem as carefully as an umu stone,
and sniffing gratefully
as an air conditioner's breeze blew down on my brow.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]